Hamilton (2020)

Movie Info

General Info

Rating
PG-13
Run Time
2 hours 40 minutes

VP Content Ratings

Violence
2 / 10
Language
4 / 10
Sex / Nudity
2 / 10
Star Rating
★★★★★

Relevant Quotes

Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind

— Proverbs 4:4
When pride comes, then comes disgrace; but wisdom is with the humble.

— Proverbs 11:2
For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.

James 3:16

Movie Review

Review of: Hamilton (2020)
Streaming movie:
Thomas Kail

Reviewed by:
Rating:
5
On July 15, 2020
Last modified:July 16, 2020

Summary:

Hamilton & his 3 friends at the beginning of the Revolution. (C) Disney +

Director Thomas Kail’s filmed version of the Broadway musical Hamilton, featuring the original cast, is a history lesson in hip hop rhyme and song and dance centered on our nation’s Founding Fathers. It is a Godsend for us Midlander’s who have neither the opportunity nor the funds to see the play itself. And Kail, who won a Tony Award for directing the play itself, gives us an even better view than we would have had from a premium-priced seat by editing in numerous close-ups of the actors during moments of intense emotion. Filmed over three days in June of 2016, the result is a mesmerizing film/theatrical experience that, thanks to Disney’s on demand streaming, one can revisit many times to catch favorite scenes—or, in the case of this hearing-impaired viewer, to catch some of the lyrics missed during the first viewing.

The songs are clever in their rhyming scheme, referencing everything from the Bible to Shakespeare to the Founding Fathers themselves—a case of the latter being excerpts from George Washington’s Farewell Address (“One Last Time”), which Hamilton did indeed ghost write. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Lin-Manuel Miranda was inspired to write his play when he read the biography by Ron Chernow, also a Pulitzer Prize winner. The dramatist also has acknowledged a host of influences—from West Wing to Harry Potter to numerous hip hop and show tune songs. (There is a conscious reference to South Pacific when Aaron Burr says “You’ve got to be carefully taught” while warning his friends to be cautious about advocating revolution in public.

The combination of singing/acting, with Andy Blankenbuehler’s large turntable  that keeps the central figures in motion, Howell Binkley’s lighting design, and the multi-purpose set, plus the spectacular photography and editing by RadicalMedia lift this far beyond the usual filmed play. More touches will probably be added when it is at last translated into a film—mainly outdoor scenes, especially those of battles which in the play are merely simulated by the Ensemble corps—but the sense of intimacy with the characters will not be improved. This really is a filmed-stage masterpiece!

Taking place from 1776 to 1804, there is never a pause in the action (other than the between the act’s–2 of them– Intermission). Starting on his native Caribbean island of Nevis with the narration of his impoverished beginnings delivered by Hamilton (Miranda), the story jumps to New York where the immigrant meets the man who will become his nemesis, Aaron Burr (played by Leslie Odom Jr). Then he befriends John Laurens (Anthony Ramos, who will later play Philip Hamilton, his son) and Marquis de Lafayette (Davi Diggs—also later, Thomas Jefferson). In this and a following scene we see that Hamilton is a hard worker proud of his intellect and eager to rise to the top by embracing the coming Revolution.

Burr is equally ambitious, but overly cautious in taking a stand, so that Hamilton chides him, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?” As Hamilton and new friends talk about breaking away from England, Burr cautions them, “Geniuses, lower your voices/You keep out of trouble and you double your choices,/I’m with you but the situation is fraught/You’ve got to be carefully taught:/If you talk, you’re gonna get shot!” His inability to take a stand that might be unpopular will be emphasized throughout the play. By the end we will see, when Burr talks about his opponent and how he will be judged by history, we see his character is similar to that of Judas in Jesus Christ: Superstar when the Betrayer screams “Don’t say I am damned for all time!”

The color-blind casting of the play at first bothered me, with Christopher Jackson playing George Washington, plus the others already mentioned and more to come. However, the idea of white actor/singers performing hip hop songs also would seem out of character. As the play progressed, with everyone so totally immersed in their parts, my qualms faded away. Hamilton meets the wealthy Schuyler sisters and is smitten—at first we think by Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry), but then it is Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo) whom he marries. In the song “Satisfied” Angelica indicates that she might have been the one to marry Hamilton—though in actual fact she could not have, because she was already married when the two met. (This is one of many omissions or changes to historic fact that Miranda makes for dramatic effect.) Marrying into the Schuyler family is a real coup for the impoverished immigrant—I use the term “immigrant” because Hamilton refers to himself often as this—and when he and Lafayette meet at the Battle of Yorktown, they sing about the coming victory, “Lafayette: Immigrants’ Both:/We get the job done!” At this point the audience applauds the loudest.

Washington & his Sec. of the Treasury Hamilton.      (c) Disney +

Hamilton’s relationship to George Washington becomes very close when, against his desire to lead troops in battle, he accepts the Commander-in-Chief’s invitation to become his aide. There is a rupture between the two, but it is overcome later in the war. Burr will lament and complain enviously later that Hamilton’s rise in the army and in government is because “Washington is on your side.” Eventually, when the Constitution is ratified, Hamilton will become Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, incurring the enmity of Jefferson, Madison and Burr who were opposed to his setting up the country’s financial system. Jefferson and Madison will come to admit that it was good and necessary. Hamilton surprises all three when during the tied election of 1800 whom he decides to cast his deciding post for the Presidency.

The play does not shy from dealing with the messier side of Hamilton’s life. His adulterous affair causes Eliza in “Burn” to banish him from her bed, as well as leading to the cuckolded husband blackmailing Hamilton. When Jefferson and his allies learn of payments the Secretary of the Treasury has been making to the man, they smell a political scandal, which forces Hamilton to write a 75-page pamphlet in which he admits it was a sexual affair and not a political one for which he made the cover-up payments. His enemies crow that he will now never be President.

Deep sorrow enters his and Eliza’s life when their son Phillip is killed in a dual arising from an insult an enemy had uttered in public against Hamilton. The young man’s death scene with Eliza and Hamilton hovering over him is heart-wrenching, the dying young man saying he followed his father’s advice not to kill his enemy” “Pa I did exactly as you said, Pa/I held my head up high… Even before we got to ten—/I was aiming for the sky/
I was aiming for the sky.” Out of their shared grief the estranged couple emerge reconciled.

Almost as impressive as this scene is the earlier one in which Washington surprises Hamilton by telling him he will not run for a third term, “One Last Time.” He tells his Secretary he wants to teach the people “how to say goodbye” and, instead of their depending on him, “how to move along.” The beautiful duet highlights Washington’s true greatness. Unlike other leaders he took up power reluctantly, and now he lays it down gladly. This is the second time the Father of the Nation has yielded power. Over a decade earlier, following the victory at Yorktown, he had resigned as Commander-in-Chief of the army, something that historians have pointed out, was the first time in well over 2000 years when the Roman Cincinnatus resigned from his generalship and returned to his plow. Across the ocean King George III is reported to have asked the American painter, Benjamin West, what Washington would do after winning independence. The artist answered, “They say he will return to his farm.” “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world,” replied the king. The next song “I Know Him” is sung by King George, beginning with, “George Washington’s yielding his power and stepping away/‘Zat true?/wasn’t aware that was something a person could do/I’m perplexed…”

King George III makes a comment. (C) Disney +

In the play King George III (Jonathan Groff) serves as both commentator from afar and a source of humor amidst serious life and death occurrences that shake the world. In “You’ll Be Back” the King exudes the wide-spread confidence that the ragtag army of rebels could never stand against the mightiest power in the world. Then his ironic but deadly promise, “I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love,” is followed by the silly nonsense, “Da da da da da da da di ya da Da da da da di ya da/Da da da da da da da da da di ya da da da da da diya.” In “What Comes Next?” he taunts an America caught between the English and the French at war against each other, again ending with the silly nonsensical phrase.

The play’s tragic denouement includes some introspection as well as narrative of the fatal duel itself. True to his advice to his son Hamilton refuses to shoot at his opponent. In “The World Was Wide Enough” we hear the thoughts of both dualists, Burr noting during the count to ten that because Hamilton is wearing his glasses he must be intending to make sure he can shoot him. Hamilton, addressing the audience, is concerned as to whether to shoot at his enemy or the sky as he asks, “If I throw away my shot, is this how you’ll remember me?/What if this bullet is my legacy?’ and then muses about what is a legacy. After shooting his opponent, Burr, also breaking the fourth wall, realizes what legacy he will leave behind. Too late, he now realizes, ”Now I’m the villain in your history/I was too young and blind to see…/I should’ve known/I should’ve known/the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me/The world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.”

Hamilton’s final meeting with Burr just before he points his pistol skyward.       (c) Disney +

Until this play came along, about all that most Americans knew of our first Secretary of the Treasury was that his face is on a ten-dollar bill. Thanks to the artistry of Lin-Manuel Miranda millions will now learn about this important Founding Father, to whom as a nation we owe so much. And maybe thousands more will become motivated to read the book that inspired him, Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton.

The play touches on our dark history of slavery, especially in its depiction of Jefferson (but not of Washington!). However,  in the section dealing with the Revolution there is little of Frederick Douglas’s famous disdain for Independence Day (“What for me is your 4th of July?”), nor later is there any of William Lloyd Garrison’s disgust for the Constitution due to the infamous compromise over counting slaves as three/fifths of a citizen.  There is a good depiction of Hamilton’s best friend John Laurens, who was a strong opponent of slavery, especially unusual considering he was from South Carolina, but little is revealed of Hamilton’s complicity in the evil, even though nominally he disliked it. His New York father-in-law owned numerous slaves, and the businessmen back on his native island paid for his trip and education in New York with the money they had earned from the slave trade and those working their sugar plantations. Maybe enough of Hamilton’s weaknesses are shown—his sometimes arrogance, and, of course, his unrepressed sexual urge that enmeshed him in adultery and giving in to blackmail.

The closing number “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” is a good one to revisit and ponder. Cynics say that “History is written by the winners,” but in the case of Hamilton we see that it is neither Burr nor his admirers who have passed on his story. In this surrealistic number from beyond the grave (reminding me of Judas in Jesus Christ: Super Star) Washington and Burr both ask, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” It is Eliza who says “I put myself back in the narrative” as she relates how over the next 50 years she interviewed soldiers and sorted through and arranged her husband’s voluminous writings, spoke out against slavery, helped raise funds for the Washington Monument, and founded the first orphanage in New York City. (From other sources we also know that she defended her husband against charges made by his many enemies, including President Madison.) No shrinking violet, this woman, so this rousing Finale is a fitting capstone to this musical monument to a Founding Father who deserves to be known for a lot more than that his portrait decorates our ten-dollar bills

Note, especially for those who might be hearing impaired, like myself: Disney does not provide the customary English subtitles, so I did the next best thing. I found the lyrics at the All Musicals website, so I copied and pasted all of the lyrics into a document. After reformatting it to eliminate the many extra spaces between lines, I opened this in a separate window while watching the film. While a bit awkward at times, this allowed me to understand the rapid-fire conversation/songs, much of which I would have otherwise missed. If you are a subscriber, I will be glad to send you a copy—it will save you about two hours if you were to do this yourself.

This review will be in the August of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.

 

 

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